Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Prestige: an intriguing film

We are at the beginning of the 19th century when science and magic were close. People believed that everything is possible either through magic or through science. Two famous magicians, rivals, struggle to steal each others secrets. In their hatred they stop at nothing. They try to kill each other and succeed in pushing each other to the limits and destroy their lives.
At first sight the scenario of the film doesn’t seem every interesting or appealing. After a whole series of the magic of Harry Potter, Narnia, Eragon two medieval magicians seem hardly noticeable. The story of those men though refers to much more than their ability to execute tricks and seduce their audience. At the beginning of the film the one of the two magicians Christian Bale, explains that in order for a magician to succeed in creating the absolute trick, the trick that will earn him a place in history, he has to have a dedication that and make sacrifices for his whole life. For him the magic tricks would be his life. This man in order to do a good trick, he chooses to live a half life. He hides his twin brother and both live their lives as if they were one single person. They share wife and mistress, even though one doesn’t the wife and the other doesn’t love the mistress. When the one of the two has an accident loses some of his fingers, the other intentionally cuts his fingers two. This man sacrifices his life for the few hours he spends on the scene.
On the other hand, his opponent- Hugh Jackman seems to be favored by luck and wealth. He doesn’t seem to struggle and sacrifice so much. When Christian Bale does his famous trick, Hugh Jackman feels pressed to do something to overpower him. He goes therefore to meet a scientist, an inventor of electricity. This man constructs a strange machine that duplicates whatever is put into it. For 100 nights he duplicates transports himself and kills his clones. For 100 nights he kills himself in order to do the absolute magic trick. Therefore the first of the magicians leaves half life obscuring his other half, his twin brother, and the second kills himself every night over and over again. Two men opponents but similar, two sides of the same coin, sacrifice everything, their lives, their loves, their identities, themselves to their hatred and most of all to their obsession. The drama is of epic proportions. Moreover, going deeper into the meaning of this film we meet a great philosophical challenge to the idea of selfhood and identity. What are the key elements of our identity and our selfhood? A twin brother normally shares with us the appearance, a genetic code. Our lives though prove our preferences, our choices and eventually manage to differentiate us. In the film’s case, though, the two brothers melt into one person. They share profession, wife and mistress, name, lives completely. Where does the identity of the one starts and how can it be compared to the other? Our identity is built on the comparison with the Other. We manage to understand our selfhood by recognizing we are separate and different from the other. How is that possible in this case that the film presents? To make things even more complicates we have the example of the other magician as well. Every night he reproduces himself by the machine. How can he know for sure that he is the original and the other is the clone, the copy? He never talks to the clones before he kills them. Only the first time before grabbing the gun we here the clone scream “Don’t, I am…..”What the original, the prototype, the real? If the clone has the memories of the original and believes to be the prototype, what differentiates him fro the original, what makes him the clone? Unsettling ideas.
Christopher Nolan manages to create atmosphere, a world between reality and surreal. Presenting a story in the medieval era he asks questions that are very modern. Actually they are part of the modern philosophy. He also manages these ideas through stunning pictures and images that have the ability to haunt the spectator. The last image from the film with the water tanks filled with copies of the same dead body over and over again definitely stays with you. To tell the truth similar ideas and similar images have been encounters again in film even if in another context. Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers for example also explores the boundaries between twin brothers. Or the Alien Resurrection presents almost the same image. Water tanks filled with the monstrous clones of Ripley. Still Prestige remains an autonomous well executed intriguing film.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Das Leben der Anderen, The lives of others: reminds us why we are praising the European cinema

The Life of Others is a German film directed, written and co-produced by the so far unknown Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. It has all the good qualities of a European film. The script even though it refers to a dramatic historical period the last years before the destruction of the wall at Berlin manages to focus on the lives of few people. It has a slow pace that doesn’t tire the spectator but allows him to really get to know the characters and to think on the issues the film presents. Intense colors are missing from the images emphasizing the harsh living conditions. The framing is carefully done and the whole aesthetics of the film reminds us the photographic art of the past.

The script is very good. A spy of the Stagi is commissioned to spy on a theatrical writer and his girlfriend, an actress. He thinks that they ordered him to do this because the writer has ideas against the government. Soon though he realizes that a minister is in love with the actress and he hopes in this way to get rid of his rival. As time goes by the spy gets more and more involve into the lives of the people he spies. He comes to appreciate their ideas their art and the love they share. Eventually instead of doing his job, he protects them and tries to help them by lying to his superiors.

The film is so thick of ideas that I feel overwhelmed in trying to explain and discuss all of them. Still I’ll make an effort to analyze the one that seem more important to me. In order to be able to discuss this film correctly one would have to see it many times and probably keep notes.

The spy is a man who lives alone isolated by the others without love and without thoughts. He has been trained not to think but only to obey his orders and execute them well. Under these circumstances the first think that gets his attention and sympathy from the people he watches is their love and companionship. In his eyes, their feelings and sincerity worth more that the lust of the minister he is forced to serve. The second think that moves him is art as a way of expression of feelings and thoughts. When the writer plays at his piano the Symphony for a good man and tells that no one who can really hear and appreciate this music can be bad the spy is seduced. In this music he recognizes not only beauty but pure emotion. As his life is completely devoid of beauty and feeling he comes to realize that he has to protect these things.

Moreover, the film demonstrates that a regime of oppression breaks the human spirit. People might still be able to go on with our lives, work, earn money, be comfortable economically but the oppression manages to intrude into their most private sides of their lives, into their thinking and into their feeling. The artists are the ones that are both the most dangerous for a regime of repression and the ones that are the most vulnerable to this system. On one hand by their art they can overrule the regime. On the other hand by being forbidden to have an audience or by being secluded and intimidated they don’t have the psychological strength to produce art. The power of art is immense. It can win people over and it can destabilize the government and change history.

Even if the film is quite emotional it manages to escape the melodrama. Subtle moves and expressions of the actors convey all the intense feelings. I appreciate enormously that the film chose a more ingenious end than the one that was obvious and probably be more emotionally satisfying for the spectators. When the writer discovers that he had been protected by the spy instead of meeting him personally he writes a book about the story and dedicates it to him. At this point the spectators feverishly wish a meeting and a dialogue between those men whose life had been so interconnected. They want the moral and emotional satisfaction that a dialogue between these would insure. Instead the director never presents this meeting on the screen. Instead for going for the easy clean-cut ending he prefers a more insinuating one but a fitting one. The spy chose not only to protect these people for their lives and personalities. He chose to protect them for their potential to create art. This is fairly obvious in his discussion with his superior. His superior presents him with his student’s essay about how artist should be dealt by the regime. He tells him that a period of enforced seclusion without physical torture breaks their spirit. The artist that has been treated in this way when they were set free they never tried to create anything again. This would be the future that would be installed for the writer. The spy when he hears all this he chooses to conceal his true report and create a false one. His best reward, therefore, is this new book of the writer.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Departed:A promising beggining and a rather dissapointing end

With The Departed Scorsese has return to more familiar ground and has done what he knows best. A story of battle between the gangsters and the police has offered him the opportunity to create an intense film with style, music and intriguing pictures. Based on a script that begins well and ends up as a disappointment Scorsese managed to prove that he is indeed a great director but failed to create a masterpiece.

It is a pity that a promising script ends up a flop. Still the picture has a lot to offer. For one thing great performances. More important though is that in this film you can still understand why Scorsese is considered to be an important director. He takes the interesting ideas and he translates into interesting pictures. Intriguing pictures both intellectually and aesthetically. He presents the paranoia of modern times creating characters edgy, crazy and scenes clear cruel violent. His rhythm is fast and intense. You go through the film with suspense and apprehension. There is intensity in every second and nothing is redundant

Moreover he manages to capture some astonishing performances form his actors. As usually Nicholson is chilling as a paranoid dangerous man. To tell the truth he is more or less stereotypical in roles like this. Matt Damon does also an excellent job. Leonardo DiCaprio has a difficult but really challenging and advantageous role to play. As the under cover cap he plays a man who is always on the edge. He is afraid of being discovered, and being killed. He is forced to kill and commit atrocious acts that both attract and repel him. And most important of all he is afraid that he has lost his identity that no one will ever no who he really is. On the edge and always on the verge of breaking down and going crazy or killing somebody Leonardo DiCaprio manages to give an astonishing performance.

The script contains some intriguing ideas. Two graduates of the police Academy start their career going into the complete different directions. Matt Damon is his superior’s favorite boy. He seems to work hard doing all the right moves. He rents the nice apartment he finds a girlfriend and settles down and he ascends fast. We soon find out however that he is a double agent as he actually works for the head figure (Jack Nicholson) of the gangsters. On the other hand Leonard DiCaprio as soon as he is out the academy he is attacked by his superiors and driven to work undercover. He goes to jail and eventually he hooks up with the head gangster Jack Nicholson. The two men are presented as the opposite sides of the same coin. Both the criminals and the policemen are represented as similar and equal. It seems that only chance and circumstances has made the one group legal and “good” and the other illegal and “evil”. An idea that is emphasized by Nicholson’s little speech in the begging in the film. He says: than in this neighborhood you can either be a cop or criminal, but when you find yourself in front of the gun what difference does it make. The point is that both groups for their own reasons are capable of extreme violence, are capable of killing. As both Leonardo DiCaprio and Mat Damon are pressed by their real employs to find each other out Scorsese emphasizes the fact that one is the counter of the other. Same and different both containing the dark and light elements they chase each other and both fall in love with the same woman. So far the good ideas of the script are fully developed and Scorsese manages to use them well. As the film moves one those intriguing ideas seem to get lost and the film slips to exaggeration, over sentimentality and a supposedly ironic comment ends up as a cliché. As the pressure on both heroes builds up the delicate balance starts to unravel and the killings begin. One by one all of the central characters of the film die. The gangster Nicholson is killed by his own employee-cup. The supervisor of Leonardo DiCaprio is murdered in conflict. Then Leonard DiCaprio himself is killed and then even Mat Damon is discovered and killed. The last image of the film is a rat on a balcony right in front of the illustrious building of the police academy. All in all the conclusion is rather known to us all: even the good guys are not so good any more. They are corrupted and violent as the other side. In the end the film looses the spectator’s faith in it. Over exaggeration and endless meaningless killing brings all the intriguing ideas of the film o a big of nothing.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Queen: a cute but too mild film

Stephen Frears has created a modest but interesting film that lies between fiction and documentary. The Queen refers to the recent past presenting the political and social implications of Princess Diane’s tragic death.
Queen was a risk. The only ones that had a special interest in its story were the Englishmen. Even those, however could be mortally offended by a film that criticized two of the fundamental institutes of the British country: the royal family and the British Government. Queen however rises up to the challenge and manages to create an interesting plot –even for the rest of the world- and describe both the Prime Minister and the Queen with humor and even sympathy. The social impact of Dianne’s death is described well. As the days go by more and more people come to pay their respects to the dead princess. The Queen however, hasn’t realized the mood of her people and considers Dianna’s death and funeral a personal, private matter. The ambitious and newly elected president, on the other hand, seizes the opportunity and taking advantage of the common feeling manages to gain popularity for himself and his party. As a result a crisis between the two head of British country develops. There is a continuous conflict among the Prime Minister and the Queen. The film manages not to take sides in this conflict. It explains the Queens behavior. She is treated as an old lady used to the ethics and customs of another era, unable to understand the modern times. She is the dignified restricted but still human. The Prime Minister even is the representative of a modern government comes to understand and sympathize with the Queen’s behavior and way of thinking. In the end both queen and Prime Minister manage to come to terms with each other and respect on another.
Frears manages to reach this delicate matter with sensitivity and without insulting any body. In my opinion however he presents a rather over optimistic and naïve aspect of the matter. All the characters are viewed in a positive light. The spectator only gets a small drift of the politics involved in the situation and the possible undercurrents and implications. Moreover the peculiar social obsession with the person of Dianne is scarcely explored or explained. The Queen remains a small cute film but too mild to become something more

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

James Bond: Casino Royale : No plot, great style

Some time ago when it was announced that the actor Daniel Craig would be the next to impersonate the historical and popular character of James Bond most funs of the series started a mutiny. Daniel Craig wasn’t sophisticated and sleek enough for them. He didn’t have the appearance of a man of the world, of a gentlemen. On the other hand Craig’s face has many straight and angle lines that express well the hidden possibility of violence. He is ideal therefore for a James Bond not so well trained to the ways of the world, not so well trained to disguise his true nature, the nature of a raw killer. Eventually most fans, having seen the film have to agree that for this James Bond Daniel Craig was an ideal choice.

The James Bond series usually have basically no story but very impressive and stylish scenes. Casino Royal is no exception. In his first mission as 007 he has to compete in Poker with the terrorist Banker and win. The first half the movie builds up to the poker game. Then the rest is about James Bond’s love story with his colleague from the British government. As the action flows in the first half the film is bearable but when the romance starts the script falls form the one cliché on to the other. The fact that James Bond, the notorious womanizer, fells in love is a first for the character and the series. From the begging of the film a suspicious viewer can tell exactly how this romance will develop and end. Supposedly this film and this story is the one that sets and justifies the characteristics of James Bond personality, the fact that he uses women and expects betrayal from their part.

Leaving the plot aside we come to the good parts of a James Bond film: the stylish aesthetics of the film. The first sequence before the titles is surprisingly good. Filmed in black and white, with high contrast and deep shadows reminds us the noir style of the late 40s. The noir style however has a modern clarity with cold tint than couldn’t be achieved with the film equipment of the 40’s. I thought the idea of adopting the noir style for the sequence of the past was quite ingenious. The specific style is well connected in the minds of the educated spectators with the late 40’s and early 50’s and it signifies the particular historical era, when the cold war arose. Lets not forget that James Bond as an agent is truly the product of the particular historical circumstance.

Another astonishing sequence is the one of the chase. This sequence replaced the most spectacular sequences that traditionally set the beginning of the story in the Bond series. Instead of the ludicrous scenes of the land Bonds where the hero used to jump off a cliff and catch the plane, or doing wind surfing on melting icebergs, the scene of the chase manages to be impressive believable and not at all ridiculous. The chased man is done by an athlete specialized in running with acrobatic moves in the city landscape. The fact that he actually does what he is filmed doing makes the sequence seem more realistic and therefore more impressive. The editing in the specific scene is superb creating the intense rhythm that a good chase scene demands. The third impressive element in the film is the titles themselves. Titles also have a long history in the series. They are always highly stylish, long and accompanied by a song that automatically becomes classic. The titles of Casino Royale play with the symbols of the cards. Highly graphic with intense colors, I believe, are probably some of the best titles ever.

All and all for a Bond film Casino Royal is pretty good. Even it practically has no plot aesthetically manages to create an interesting proposal and renew the Bond series. Darker and more realistic than the most Bonds succeeds at surpassing the period of the self parody and ludicrous excess that characterized the Bonds of the 90’s. Casino Royal is definitely not a good film but it is a good Bond film. Have fun!

Check the first sequence in the noir style and the titles...

The Wind that shakes the Barley: A historical melodrama that fails to sustain its inner meaning

The new film of Ken Loach is narrating a part of the history of Irish and British combat. It starts demonstrating the British regime of violence and oppression that eventually pushes the Irish peasants over the limit and drives them into resistance and action. Young boys, farmers are trained by IRA in order to sabotage and kill English soldiers. Killing the others, the Englishmen, is relatively easy for these lads that have been filled with hate and anger after years of mistreatment. Eventually the English army withdraws. A new conflict begins- this time- among the Irish. A civil war is always described as a war between brothers and this is also demonstrated in the Ken Loach film. The two brothers- the main film characters- take the opposite sites and the one is eventually executed by the other.

The story of Ireland has been fairly developed and exposed in film. In these films even a foreigner can read the signs of a very painful history and sense that the scars haven’t faded away yet. The well-directed story of the recent history of Ireland might be a good film by itself for those who have a special interest and emotional connection to the particular historical period (Irish and British) for the rest of the world though something is missing. Everybody knows that a war is a painful situation and that a civil war is even worse. Most of us suspect that in these circumstances right is lost. All sides have their own right. Why do we need another film to state all the same old and familiar truths?

Ken Loach manages to impress on his film all the markings of a good director: beautiful images, careful framing, suspense and good rhythm, emotionality. The film however has a fling for melodrama, and ends up being a little bit vacant. When you watch it you are sufficiently drawn into it but when the film finishes what does remain? Unfortunately nothing lingers. Ken Loach fails to create a film that will take all these well-known and accepted truths and make us see them in a new enhanced light, make us think them over one more time, experience again and acknowledge them from the beginning. It is a pity because these truths are really important and we shouldn’t forget them or take them as given.